Understanding Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Part 2: Moses’ Situational Law and MDR

Previously we began examining Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and we noted that even though this is a text from the Old Testament it is still highly relevant because of its bearing on Matthew 19:3-9 and therefore what God expects of mankind regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage. We spent the majority of our time, however, examining the text itself and the discrepancies between the various translations and the texts in the ancient languages. We determined from this study that the rendering of the passage as the English Standard Version (ESV) has done is probably the most accurate translation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4:

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”

Let us now first examine exactly what this passage is teaching us in regards to the Israelite laws of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and then let us apply this knowledge to the situation presented to us in Matthew 19:3-9.

This passage here represents a “situational law,” which is a law that is in effect in certain given circumstances. We may not be immediately aware of it, but we live with many, many laws in our country that operate in the very same way. As an example, those of us who are drivers are aware of the speed limit and we are also aware that in the region of a school there will be signs with a posted lower speed limit, and sometimes these signs read “20 mph on school days when children are present.” If we were to flesh out this statement into a full law, it would look similar to this:

If you are driving near this school and if it is a school day and if children are present, you will go 20 miles per hour.

There are many things that we can see in this type of law. One of the most important points is that all of the conditions must be in effect for the law to apply. If, for instance, there are children present on a Saturday, this law is not in effect; this is also true if it is a school day yet no children are present. In those circumstances the normal speed limit will apply; only when it is both a school day and when children are present will the law regarding the 20 mph speed limit be in effect.

This very same thing is true about Deuteronomy 24:1-4. We have seen from the previous edition that the first three verses represent the “protasis,” or the circumstance under which the law will apply, and the first clause of verse 4 represents the “apodosis,” or the legislation that is given in this circumstance. We can therefore analyze the text in the following manner:

  1. “If a man takes a wife and marries her.” If a man never gets married, then the conclusion can never apply to him.
  2. “and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found in her some unclean thing.” If the wife finds favor in the eyes of her husband and/or he does not find any unclean thing in her, then they will probably remain married and the rest of the situation and the following law cannot apply to them.
  3. “and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house.” Even if he finds an unclean thing in her he may decide to stay married to her; this is also a significant reason why the KJV variant of the text does not work well in this situation. If he remains married to her by necessity the conclusion does not apply to him or her.
  4. “And she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife.” If she leaves but yet does not marry again, the conclusion does not apply to her previous husband.
  5. “And if the latter husband hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, or if the latter man who took her as wife dies.” If she does marry again, however, and her new husband likes her and continues to live and is still married to her, the law following does not apply to her or to her previous husband.
  6. “then her former husband, who sent her away, is not able to have her again as wife, since she has been defiled.” This conclusion is only possible when she was first married, then did not find favor in her husband’s eyes because of some unclean thing, she is divorced by him and sent away, she marries another man who hates her and divorces her or who dies. After that point it is not possible for the first husband to take her back because she is defiled to him and such is an abomination before God.

This exercise above may seem obvious to many people, as well it should, but it is important for us to analyze the text properly and to clearly map out what this text is telling us. What have we seen from the above?

  1. Divorce is not condemned. Moses matter-of-factly states that the man divorces the woman and even discusses the possibility that the second husband divorces the woman, and there is no condemnation made.
  2. Remarriage itself is not necessarily the problem; remarriage after one’s spouse has been the spouse of another is. We noted that if the woman was divorced but did not marry another there would be nothing wrong with her husband remarrying her. The problem of remarriage exists only when a spouse has become the husband or wife of another in the meantime.
  3. The legislation is aimed at the first husband alone. Moses does not legislate that a woman can be married and divorced twice or married and divorced once and widowed once and that is all; he says that in the given situation the first husband cannot have her back. There is no condemnation given, therefore, if the woman desired to take a third husband or perhaps even more.

Having set out the above, let us now continue to analyze the text and some truths from the Old and New Testaments to further understand what we can gain from Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in regards to the discussion of Matthew 19:

The Law of Moses and Divorce

The exchange between the Pharisees and Jesus regarding the Law of Moses and divorce in Matthew 19:7-8 is critical here:

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

We noted in our last edition that the fact that Jesus corrects the Pharisees regarding the nature of Moses’ discussion of divorce– notably, that it was a concession and not a command. It is important, however, that the Pharisees speak of Deuteronomy 24:1 and Jesus does not deny that this verse concedes the Israelites the ability to divorce. It may be noted, however, that we just said that the divorce is part of the larger situation that involves a command at the end, and that the divorce is not explicitly commanded or explicitly legitimated in the text. This is very true. It must be noted, however, that there is no verse in the Law of Moses that forbids divorce, and, save for priests, there is no law that forbids a man from marrying a divorced woman. It is also significant that in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 the situation is addressed regarding one or even two divorces and yet Moses does not condemn anyone for the divorces or considers it a sin in any way; the only legislation given is that the first husband cannot have her again after she has been the wife of another. There is no value judgment against either the first or the second husband nor against the woman herself. This fact– along with the discussion in Matthew 19:7-8– demonstrates that in this passage we have Moses’ concession to the Israelites showing that they could divorce their wives.

The Object of the Legislation

Against the above, many will argue that verse 4 states that the woman is defiled and that the divorces are the source of this defilement. There are two problems with this viewpoint, and the most significant is the recognition of the object of the legislation. The subject of verse 1 is the first man who takes the woman as wife, and this same person is the subject of the law given in verse 4. The object of the legislation– the person whose conduct is being governed by the law– is the first husband, not the second husband and not the woman in question. The law also is not a condemnation of divorce, either by the first husband or the second husband (if he does in fact divorce the woman), but a condemnation of any attempt of remarriage between the first husband and the woman. The other problem with this interpretation is that the legislation applies if the second husband dies; if the source of her defilement are the divorces, how is she still defiled by the death of her spouse? She has no control over such things, and nowhere else in Scripture do we find that a death of a spouse brings defilement upon the other.

What, then, shall we say about her defilement? It appears that since the object of the legislation is the first husband that the woman is defiled to him and to him alone since she has been the wife of another. This makes sense contextually since the practice of a man remarrying his wife after she has been the wife of another is called an abomination before the LORD in verse 4. If the defilement were from the divorce at all, we would have to wonder why it would likewise not be wrong for the man to remarry his wife if she did not marry another? Or why a woman is not defiled when she marries the other man, and, in the same line of thinking, why a woman is not defiled when she marries a man after her first husband died? The defilement, therefore, does not find its source in the woman being divorced but in relation to the first husband since his ex-wife has also been the wife of another. As it has been stated above, the text gives no indication of any condemnation for the woman taking a third husband or more, and if the defilement were universal and not specific to one man, we would see that all subsequent marriages– and even the second marriage itself– would be wrong. Moses says no such thing, and therefore neither shall we.

Now that we have thoroughly analyzed Deuteronomy 24:1-4, what shall we say? We have seen that Moses’ legislation states essentially that a man cannot remarry a wife who has after their divorce been the spouse of another. This passage concedes to the Israelites the ability for them to divorce their wives and, save the priests, the ability for a man to marry a divorced woman. Let us now look at Matthew 19:3-9 and apply what we have learned.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

It must first be stated that the question of divorce was very contentious in Israel in the first century CE. Influential teachers of the past couple of centuries, including Hillel and Shammai and the schools that developed around them, spent much time discussing what Moses intended for marriage and divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, arguing over what constituted an “unclean thing” and many other such arguments. The Pharisees, therefore, come to Jesus with this question regarding divorce not to learn His belief but in fact to trap Him, very much like they did in Matthew 22:15-22:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his talk. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.”
And they brought him a denarius.
And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
They said, “Caesar’s.”
Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

As the Pharisees thought in Matthew 22:15-22 that they could trap Jesus with whatever answer He would give (for, in their minds, if He said that the Jews should pay taxes they would say that He supported the Roman oppression of the Jewish people, and if He said that the Jews ought not pay taxes, they would say that He was preaching sedition against Rome), so they could trap Him in whatever answer He would give regarding divorce: if He asserted that divorce could occur for any reason, they would point to the “unclean thing” in Deuteronomy 24:1 and demand an explanation; if He said that divorces could not occur for any reason, they would point to Moses’ lack of condemnation in Deuteronomy 24:1, just as they in fact did in verse 7 of chapter 19. Jesus’ answer, however, confounded the Pharisees just as His answer in Matthew 22:15-22 did also, for Jesus at the same time affirmed the truths of the two major schools of thought regarding divorce, the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. Jesus affirms that under the Law of Moses divorce was permitted– “suffered” as He says in verse 8– just as Hillel’s school would; but, with Shammai, Jesus affirms that God’s original plan for marriage, as established in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:24, was one man one woman for life and that the only legitimate cause of divorce was “sexual immorality.” The Pharisees could do nothing with this answer.

It must also be noted that there are some who attempt to make semantical arguments regarding the words used by the Pharisees and Jesus in Matthew 19:7-8:

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

It is believed that the Greek word apoluo, used by Jesus in verse 8, is a different and separate concept from the Greek biblion apostasiou used by the Pharisees as a quotation from Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and therefore that Jesus was only condemning divorces done “improperly,” defined as those done without the giving of a “certificate of divorce,” the biblion apostasiou. There is a significant problem with this position: the Greek Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 does not include the word apoluo at all, nor would it be demanded by a comparable word in the Hebrew text. Jesus’ use of the word apoluo in verse 8, therefore, is independent from Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and it is impossible for Jesus to mean that Moses literally spoke of apoluo in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 when he never spoke the word! Jesus’ use of apoluo, therefore, refers to the concept of and execution of the divorce procedure discussed by Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Therefore, when Jesus says in verse 8 that “Because of the hardness of your heart Moses suffered you to divorce [apoluo] your wives; but from the beginning this has not been so,” He refers to the exactly repeated phrase, “he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her away from his house,” in Deuteronomy 24 verses 1 and 3, with the term apoluo, and establishes that Moses did in fact suffer the Israelites to be able to do this thing.

Now, returning to the text itself: what is the interplay here between the Pharisees and Jesus? The Pharisees first ask the general question in verse 3, devised to trap Him, on whether or not a man can divorce his wife for any reason. Jesus responds with the Scriptures in verses 4 and 5, Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24, and concludes in verse 6 that whatever God has joined man ought not separate. The Pharisees, realizing that Jesus is effectively saying that divorces ought not happen, then in verse 7 appeal directly to Deuteronomy 24:1, and ask how what Jesus says can be when Moses “commanded” a man to “give her a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” Jesus returns immediately in verse 8 and says that Moses suffered the Israelites to divorce their wives, not that Moses commanded it, and then establishes that “from the beginning–” Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden– “this has not been so.” Jesus concludes His discussion with the Pharisees with the declaration of the new “old” (since it was in effect in the Garden) law regarding marriage in verse 9, that anyone who divorces their spouse for any reason save sexual immorality and marries another commits adultery.

Our conclusions regarding Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and how it relates to Matthew 19:3-9:

  1. Moses “suffered,” and did not “command,” the Israelites to divorce their wives. We have spoken of this for two editions now, for it does not make any sense for Moses to command the Israelites to divorce their wives (after all, if this is true, then it would be a sin for an Israelite to continue to be married to anyone for any duration of time!), but does declare that Moses did allow the Israelites to divorce their wives “because of the hardness of their heart.”
  2. Jesus’ use of apoluo refers to the entire divorce concept and procedure of Deuteronomy 24:1. We have noted that Moses never used the term apoluo in Deuteronomy 24:1, and therefore when Jesus speaks of Moses allowing the Israelites to divorce (apoluo) their wives, Jesus refers to the entire line, “he will write for her a certificate of divorce (Gk. biblion apostasiou) and will put it in her hand and send her away from his house.” This entire procedure, therefore, “from the beginning has not been so.”
  3. It was not God’s intention for man to divorce his spouse. Jesus appeals to the marital situation in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:24– one man one woman for life in Matthew 19:4-7, and that what God has joined man should not separate.
  4. Deuteronomy 24:1 was not the way that it was from the beginning, nor is it the way it is with Jesus Christ. Jesus explicitly states in verse 8 that the concession of divorce to the Israelites was not what God wanted but was done because of their “hardness of heart.” It was “not so” from the beginning, however, and Jesus then declares in verse 9 the Gospel truth about marriage, divorce, and remarriage, that the only justified reason for divorce is sexual immorality. We should see Deuteronomy 24:1, therefore, as a concession to the Israelites and the Israelites alone.
  5. The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ differ in regards to marriage, divorce, and remarriage. This is the natural conclusion of the above: the Israelites were suffered to divorce their wives, but Jesus reaffirms that marriage is to be one man one woman for life, and the only reason for divorce is sexual immorality.

Let no man be deceived: it is God’s intention for marriage to be one man and one woman for life. The only concessions are for the death of a spouse (Romans 7:1-4) and divorce for the reason of sexual immorality (Matthew 19:9). This is the law instituted by Christ that was actually instituted in the Garden of Eden, but because of the hardness of the hearts of the Israelites, God for a time conceded to them the ability to divorce their spouses in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This concession, however, is by no means the rule, and we must recognize and teach the difference in teachings and affirm that Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:9 are true for every believer and non-believer in the world today.

May we constantly hold fast to the truth of the Gospel of Christ in regards to marriage, divorce, and remarriage.


Understanding Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Part 2: Moses’ Situational Law and MDR

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